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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Learning from the Masters: Robert McCammon

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Robert McCammon is the author of A Boy’s Life, Stinger, Swan Song, Gone South, and several other highly readable horror novels. He has also written his share of short stories, and it is to one of these that we turn in this post, that we may learn from another master of the genre in its rather abbreviated form.

For those who have not read his short story, “The Thang,” which originally appeared in Hot Blood (1989), a volume of erotic horror, a summary is in order:

Dave Nielson has traveled 700 miles to visit a magic shop in New Orleans, where he hopes to find a solution to his problem (nature was not generous in endowing him with the essentials of masculinity). He hopes a voodoo practitioner may be able to help him. He meets one, Miss Fallon, at the shop, who offers to remedy his anatomical deficiency, asking for half her $300 fee up front and the rest after Dave has seen the results. She mixes him a drink, replying to his query as to its ingredients, “You don’t want to know.”

After he manages to drink the potion, Miss Fallon orders him to return to her after the weekend, eating nothing, meanwhile, but gumbo and oysters. Dave rents a room in a nearby motel.

He feels “different” almost immediately, and is able--or imagines himself to be able--to hear “the blood racing in his veins.” However, when he checks himself, he is distressed to see that his problem remains. He sees a gentleman’s club across the street from his motel, and he decides that, since he’s unable to sleep, he may as well enjoy the show. “Without thinking,” he orders a beer.

Aroused by a dancer, his manhood springs free, now “the size of a small artillery piece,” his testicles as large as “cannonballs.”

Horrified, Dave flees the club, its patrons terrified of him. He returns to his motel room, where, after having reached a length of 17 inches, Dave’s “thang” returns to its
former puny size. He struggles to prevent himself from having erotic thoughts, but a woman’s announcement, on the street below, that she seeks immediate intimacy with a man causes him to lose control over his libido. As the woman, Ginger, continues to voice her need, Dave struggles with his monstrous organ, causing enough noise to capture the attention of his neighbors, an elderly couple, who, having appeared in the doorway, witness “what appeared to be a naked man fighting a pale python.”

Apparently, they call the desk clerk, because he and a security guard arrive within moments. The clerk declaring, “We don’t permit. . . this kind of behavior in our establishment,” and Dave is summarily evicted. When he arrives to open the magic shop, the shop’s owner, Malcolm, takes one look at Dave, “suitcase in his hand and his shirttail out,” waiting “on deserted Bourbon Street,” and concludes, “You done screwed up, didn’t you?”

When Miss Fallon arrives at the shop, Dave confesses to having drunk a beer, learning the bad news that there is no antidote to the potion that has extended him--not, that is, unless he is willing to allow Miss Fallon and her Aunt Flavia to “experiment” on him by concocting various elixirs. In three months or so, she says, the two women might be able to produce an antidote.

However, there is one not-so-small catch. Dave must agree to become Aunt Flavia’s boarder. She is an unattractive woman, a husky octoroon woman with copper eyes, her long-jawed face like a wrinkled prune,” whose feminine parts are as oversize as Dave’s masculine counterparts--so large, in fact, that Dave is horrified to see “something loose and fleshy was brushing against the front of her caftan, down between her thighs. . . Something very large.”

This story is almost entirely situational. There is little development of character. It is similar to a medieval fabliaux, in which the foolishness of a protagonist is highlighted and exemplified by his or her behavior, which is motivated by a simple desire to engage in sex. This desire is, in turn, usually frustrated or complicated by another character, often with the result that the protagonist is humbled, if no wiser. These cautionary tales sometimes end with the statement of an explicit moral, but, just as often, they conclude without making their messages clear. It is difficult to imagine how a reader could not conclude for him- or herself the moral of a story like “The Thang.”

Men are as obsessed with the size of their genitals, it seems, as women appear to be preoccupied with the dimensions of their breasts. Those of both sexes who find themselves dissatisfied with their endowments in these particulars often seek to enlarge them, whether through the use of chemicals, instruments, or surgery. For many, the results are satisfactory, but, occasionally, something goes wrong, as it certainly does in McCammon’s story. Reducing the whole of himself to a part (or parts) is dehumanizing, and, therefore, absurd. Dave is a grotesque character, because his overriding concern with the size of his manhood in particular and with sexual considerations in general reduce him to silly dimensions as a human being. He is ruled by his libido, which makes, for him, the matter of his endowment of extreme importance. He discovers, only after the trauma of getting what he has wished for, that his dream, having come true, is a nightmare. His having to live with and satisfy the fleshly appetites of a woman who is as self-absorbed with sex as he himself is--or has been--is an ironic penance. However, matters could be much worse, for Dave’s apparent promiscuity obviously makes him susceptible to risks that far outweigh even a nearly uncontrollable phallus the size of a “python.” The gargantuan member seems to symbolize Dave’s own infatuation with sex and size. As the story’s title suggests, Dave’s gargantuan member is itself a manifestation of his obsessive interest in such matters. The story shows--literally--that his obsession with sex and size is monstrous.

He seems more in need of a psychologist than of a pair of voodoo priestesses. McCammon’s bawdy story pokes fun at the proclivity of men in general to be ruled, in sexual matters, by their passions. Dave, for better or for worse, is an everyman, whose sexual obsessions amuse, annoy, mystify, and anger women who can’t understand why a man can’t simply be satisfied with what nature has given to him (even if, in their own cases, they may seek to “enhance” their breasts with surgical implants.) Perhaps McCammon will pen a sequel that focuses upon such damsels in distress.

There is, at times, a fine line between humor and horror, and, in “The Thang,” McCammon has found, if not crossed, this line.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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